Happy Birthday Macbeth

2005 will mark the 1000th anniversary of the birth of Macbeth - one of Scotland's best kings, it's most famous by far - and easily the most misunderstand. Some may even say that Macbeth is one of the most defamed monarchs of history.

The problem lies with the fact that Macbeth is known almost exclusively to the world as the result of Shakespeare's tragedy written in 1607. He is in fact not only the most famous of all Scottish kings as a direct result of the play, but many people in the world (Scotland included) are not aware he was even a real man. Most have assumed him to be just a tyrant king of fiction.

Prof. John Beatty, and anthropologist and film maker of the Brooklyn College (CUNY) film department not only knew better, but decided it was time to try and rectify the King's image to the world at large. He directed a documentary about the real king, and by doing so, hopes to bring a sense of the truth about the man who lived from 1005-1057 (and ruled from 1040 till his death). As Professor Beatty has stated, Macbeth was considered a good and just monarch - he fostered Christianity, put down lawbreakers, and ruled for 17 productive years - something to consider in a dark and very dangerous age. So secure was his kingdom that he apparently went on a pilgrimage to Rome, which by all accounts took approximately 6 months to complete. In all that time there were no insurrections at home in Scotland - no riots, no challenges and no calls to bring down the absent king - proof in a volatile time of his revered status. If he had been the murderous monster of Shakespeare's fiction, he would surely have returned to a land in upheaval.

Macbeth defeated King Duncan in battle - not murdered in bed in the middle of the night by the would-be usurper. All historical indications point in fact to Duncan being not very well liked and most were probably happy at his passing. And he was not the kindly old-man of Shakespeare, but a near contemporary of Macbeth in age and status.

Shakespeare wrote his play to commemorate King James VI-I, who in 1603 had ascended to the English throne upon Elizabeth's death. He was the Stewart king of Scotland for many years, and now ruled both kingdoms - an event that would eventually lead a little more than 100 years later in the union of Scotland and England. Shakespeare was writing in one way to legitimize the Scottish king's ascendancy to the English throne, by showing that king's born and established right to rule. In Macbeth's day, and by ancient tradition, he was one of many who might have ruled as king - the most fit essentially elected by the leading royal contenders and their various, legal factions. By the time of Shakespeare this Celtic tradition was long dead (and in fact may be said to have died with the real Macbeth) - there could only be one legitimate heir to any throne.

The author relied on historical documents for his information - both English and Scottish - which all had their share of prejudices and agendas. And many were written hundreds of years after Macbeth was dead. Many were written and reinterpreted to follow contemporary rules of society, religion and royal succession, not what may have been the truth of the times.

As 2005 approached, Prof. Beatty thought that the recently re-established parliament of Scotland would be the perfect place to bring the notion of celebrating the king's birth to light. By doing so, it could help start a dialogue about history, drama, and politics. He contacted several Members of Scottish Parliament with his idea that the government should declare 2005, The Year of Macbeth. Soon after Alex Johnstone (Conservative MSP) took up the challenge. He drafted a motion, supported by more than 20 MSP from all parties, and put it forward to the Scottish Parliament, where it now awaits a decision.

The news of the motion set forth an unforeseen wave of publicity - newspapers from all over the world covered the story - from Britain to the Persian Gulf, to India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the U.S., and beyond. The BBC and National Public Radio have both interviewed the professor a number of times regarding this event.

It has already sparked a debate with a couple of newspaper writers who were a bit worried and facetiously proclaimed that Shakespeare might now have to be re-written. Nothing could be further from the truth. All that was intended is that the real King and all his deeds share the world's stage with his highly fictionalized alter-ego. If the motion before the Scottish Parliament is passed and 2005 does indeed become the Year of Macbeth, the long dead king, one of Scotland's best and least understood, will finally get his chance to stand up and take a bow.

Assorted articles:


The Daily Record

The Herald & Sun (Australia)

   The Daily Telegraph

The World Tonight streaming report. (needs realOne Player)

Quicktime mov from grampian tv

NPR All Things Considered Interview with Prof Beatty, February 8, 2005 (needs realOne Player)

NPR - "Listeners: Letters: Laura Bush, Gospel Choir, MacBeth" (needs realOne Player)

BBC news - "Macbeth gets politicians' backing"

CBC canada article - "Shakespeare defamed Macbeth, says Scottish politician"

News24 - "Macbeth got bad press"

New Kerala, India - "Macbeth not as villainous as portrayed by Shakespeare"

Reuters - "Scottish MPs: Shakespeare Was Wrong About Macbeth"

Melbourne Herald Sun, Australia - "Macbeth redeemed"

Edinburgh Evening News - "Macbeth 'Misportrayed' by Shakespeare"

Calcutta Telegraph, India - "Play is foul, Macbeth is fair - Scottish legislators launch campaign to clear kings name"

Webindia123, India - "Macbeth not as villainous as portrayed by Shakespeare"

The Sun, UK - "Bid to clear Macbeth name"

Monsters and Critics, UK - "Macbeth was no Hellhound"



The Brooklyn College Film Department offered a five week mini-course comparing the real Macbeth (born 1005) with the Shakespeare version in a number of incarnations. The course, taught by John Beatty included lectures on the historical Macbeth as well as five different film versions (three of the Shakespeare play, Throne of Blood by the Japanese director Kurosawa, and the more recent Men of Respect).